Maybe you’ve seen the World at War, by Thames Television. It’s a 1970’s documentary, in 26 parts if I remember rightly. It’s possibly the finest video record of the war in existence. And one of the finest documentaries of any sort, full stop. It cannot ever be equalled as far as telling the story of the war from the viewpoint of the people who lived through it. Too many of them are no longer around to offer their account.
The story begins with some aerial and street level footage of a little town called Oradour. It was stripped of its inhabitants in 1944 by German machine guns. Every last one of them. And today the village remains as an uninhabited ghost village, a monument to the dead. It’s a reminder to the French of the atrocity. It’s a reminder to everyone of what war is about. And to us Brits? I’m glad we managed to prevent an invasion. We got off comparitively lightly in World War Two.
There is a ghost village in England though. It’s called Tyneham Village. Soldiers came here, and emptied the homes, church and school of their inhabitants. Fortunately, they were our own troops, and they simply moved the people on. The village and the surrounding area was needed by the army. Everyone made sacrifices for the war effort of some kind. The village would be returned after the war. Except, as it turned out, the base continued to be a useful site for British Army tank practise. And so the village remains, like Oradour, abandoned to this very day.
It is possible to walk around it, when the tanks aren’t firing shells into the nearby hillside. There is little sense of violent conflict here, but that’s because there was none. Instead, I was reminded of the History Channel series, Life After People. It’s amazing how quickly decay sets in, and previously solid and stable structures begin to crumble. It would have been interesting if there had been a pamphlet explaining the disintegration, and where the lost parts went.
It would have been interesting if there had been a pamphlet explaining the disintegration, and where the lost parts went. The school and church have been preserved. The former is still a functioning place of worship. The latter is a museum of sorts, with a blackboard showing the topic of the day, and the desks holding actual pieces of work produced by the last set of pupils to be seated there.
The remaining buildings, which housed the villagers and served as the post office and shops, are all in ruins and are scattered around the plot with typically English randomness. The yards are all overgrown, but the pathways leading tourists to the buildings are maintained. The roofs have all long gone, and the slates, tiles and debris cleared. The windows have all disappeared too, which is understandable. Glass gets broken, and health and safety rules would no doubt demand their clearance. Many of the window spaces have modern wooden supports to help keep the structures standing.
None of the ruins have any doors left, which I found a little strange – doors are normally pretty hard wearing and long lasting. The preserved school building still has its original wood door, painted a bright but peeling red. It’s a pretty hefty slab of oak, and adds character to the building. You can picture the kids who are late for school trying to heave it open gently, hoping it won’t creak and alert the teacher to their lateness.
But alas, none of the other buildings have these doors left intact. I did look around to see if they had been stacked somewhere, perhaps to be restored and replaced, but the piles of old materials were solely of slate, stone and brick. There’s another thing I find interesting about old doorways. It’s like returning to Mexico for a moment, where I spent six years ducking through entrances – the average height of a Mexican is substantially less that that of an average Englishman. And I am tall even by English standards. Mexican doors aren’t built with 6’3″ Englishmen in mind! The older the building in England, the smaller the entrances. Within our old buildings, the doors provide an architectural record showing how the population has grown in height over the last few centuries.
The church graveyard continues to accept new arrivals. The most recent headstone was erected for a chap called Arthur Grant in 2010. He was the second-to-last person who had lived in the village to die. The last one? He is yet to meet his maker. In fact he was strolling around the village while we were there, reminiscing about times gone by. I don’t know what he thought of the way the village had been left to fall apart. But the decay is all part of the charm. Decay is always quite photogenic. There’s a very interesting photo collection showing the rate of decay in urban settings, some of which most of you will have some familiarity with. And then there’s my photos of Tyneham Village on Flickr.